Reviewed by Laura Caton
Pittsburgh’s rivers are represented even before the first lines are spoken in the new play The Rivers Don’t Know. The show, written by James McManus , and coproduced by City Theatre and Cornerstone Theater Company , is currently playing at Point Park University’s Pittsburgh Playhouse. The play’s striking set, by Nephelie Andonyadis, is a runway-like representation of a river, suggesting motion and turbulence, creating the perfect platform and canopy for the various stories that comprise the evening.
As the title suggests, the rivers are unbothered by human affairs: they may not know, but, happily, that means they also can’t judge. This lack of judgment is a source of solace for Khadija, portrayed with winning charm by Danielle Obisie-Orlu. She seeks to come to terms not only with the usual awkwardness of a high school crush and the deft spanning of two worlds required of the daughter of immigrants to the United States but also with her mother’s untimely death.
Khadija’s story, along with those of her father (impressively played by first-time actor Aweys Mwaliya), best friend (Shravani Lakshmi Charyulu), and romantic interest (Max Pavel), form the spine of The Rivers Don’t Know. With heart and humor, the play explores what it means to find a home, not only in a city or a community but also within a relationship or even within yourself.
The story is echoed by another, set in postwar 1940s Pittsburgh, as Polish steel mill worker Stash (Michael Shahen) and his no-nonsense wife (Jane Tinker) fight for their own ideas about the best path for their son. Their trials are juxtaposed not only against the modern-day storyline but against that of their friend Ezzy (Farooq Al-Said), who struggles with the racist attitudes of his colleagues and his nation generally.
The stories unfold in interwoven scenes, merging into each other and into the third strand of the evening, a series of monologues inspired by the stories of immigrants in the Pittsburgh community. As the program notes, the play results from a wide-ranging collaboration between its writer, director, producing partners, and local community groups in Pittsburgh. It was developed in late 2019 with visits to many of those groups and honed throughout and despite the pandemic.
Many of the cast are not trained actors; some have never been on stage before; all are personable, courageous, and charming in their presence and in the stories they tell. They represent countries across the globe, as far-flung as Iraq and as close to home as Mexico, with stories ranging from romance to heartbreak. They are led by the exuberant and amiable masters of ceremony for the evening, Khara Timsina and Serap Uzunoglu. They welcome us to the space at the top of the show and act as comic relief and Greek chorus by turns throughout.
It’s a lot of ground to cover and a lot of emotions to juggle, but the steady direction by Michael John Garcés keeps everything in motion without chaos. The show’s flow echoes, again, the sense of a river: scenes slipping into each other seamlessly as cast members from different strands of the story inhabit the space together, briefly, and separate again. Even on opening night, the show had a measured confidence despite being a maiden voyage for many of its cast members.
The Rivers Don’t Know is a joyous and timely reminder of the human faces behind words that can be tossed around in headlines with an almost clinical detachment. Still, every immigrant, every refugee, is first and foremost a person with their own needs, dreams, tragedies, and triumphs, and they are also our neighbors. The Rivers Don’t Know presents the promise of connection and acceptance and encourages us, with playfulness and candor, to seek them out beyond our own assumptions or stereotypes. It’s a love letter to Pittsburgh and to the human spirit.
PERFORMANCES & TICKETING
7:30 p.m. Thurs., Sept 16
7:30 p.m. Fri., Sept 17
3 and 7:30 p.m., Sat. Sept 18
3 p.m. Sun., Sept 19
Reservations and information for the performances at the Highmark Stage, Pittsburgh Playhouse, 300 Forbes Ave., Downtown: playhouse.pointpark.edu/tickets/specialEvents/riversdontknow or the Pittsburgh Playhouse box office, 412-392-8000.
COVID-19 SAFETY PROTOCOLS:
Protocols are set by the Playhouse and may be evolving. Visit playhouse.pointpark.edu for details.
All City and Playhouse staff and patrons will be required to wear masks at all times while inside the venue.
Seating capacity has been reduced by at least 70% for performances
Patrons are asked not to attend if they are not feeling well or have been exposed or potentially exposed to someone exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, or have recently tested positive for the virus.
The Playhouse intends to require proof of vaccination for all patrons.